An Ecological Footprint is a quantitative measurement of how much ecologically productive land and water a defined population unit needs to support its current consumption and render harmless its wastes.
Everything we use for our daily needs and activities stems from raw natural resources. The Ecological Footprint, measured in acres or hectares, calculates the amount of Earth's bio-productive space needed to keep a certain population unit living and consuming at its current levels.
How is the Ecological Footprint calculated?
The calculations take the following resources into account:
- Arable Land Required: the amount of land required for growing crops for food, fiber, animal feed etc.
- Pasture Land Required: the resources required for growing animals for meat, hides, milk etc.
- Forest Resources: the resources needed for fuel, furniture, housing, etc and for providing many ecosystem services like climate stability and erosion prevention.
- Ocean Resources: water needed for fish and other marine products
- Infrastructure Needed: land needed for transportation and building factories, housing etc.
- Energy Costs: land required for absorbing carbon dioxide emissions and other wastes.
Note: Species extinction, air pollution, water pollution, land pollution etc. are not yet included in calculating this ecological footprint.
Ecological Footprint - Global Footprint, National Footprints
The planet's biological productive capacity (biocapacity) is approximately 1.9 hectares (4.7 acres) per person. Globally, we use up to 2.2 hectares per person. Thus, we are living beyond the planet's biocapacity to sustain us by 15%, a deficit of 0.3 hectares (1 acre) per person. This deficit is apparent, as natural ecosystems around us fail one by one - forest systems, oceans, fisheries, coral reefs, rivers, soil, water, global warming etc.
The planet's biocapacity is dependent on the global population and rate of consumption. High consumption depletes the planet's carrying capacity. And estimates indicate that, if global population trends continue, the ecological footprint available to each person would be reduced to 1.5 hectares per person, by 2050. If consumption rates as high as the western countries are adopted by the majority of humanity, then we would need 4 to 5 more planets to sustain ourselves.
The USA has the largest per capita footprint in the world - a footprint of 9.57 hectares. If everyone on the planet was to live like the average American, we would need 5 planets to sustain everyone. At a footprint of 9.57 hectares per person, our planet's biocapacity would only be able support about 1.2 billion people - far less than the 6 billion we have on Earth. On the other end of the spectrum, if everyone lived like those residing in Bangladesh, where the average footprint is only 0.5 hectares, then the earth could support roughly 22 billion people.
Here are the ecological footprints of selected countries:
"Ecological Footprint analysis provide an important reminder of the implications of resource use at the global level and the differences between countries around the globe. The Ecological Footprint can also help tell important stories at the local, national, and international levels, providing support for policies that make cities and regions more sustainable."
- From the Ecological Footprint of Nations by Redefining Progress